Have you ever bragged about how little sleep you got before you showed up at a meeting a continent away after taking a red-eye flight? Have you ever said of someone, “The guy doesn’t sleep,” and meant it as a compliment? Have you ever said, as I used to when I was in the Army (certainly the height of my machismo posturing), “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”?
Here are a couple of things to consider the next time you board the overnight flight to Wherever: manage only four hours a sleep a night for four or five days, and you’ll experience the same level of cognitive impairment as if you’d been awake 24 hours straight—the same as if you were legally drunk. Go ten days on short sleep, and it’s as if you’ve been awake for 48 hours straight. Reaction time, judgment, and problem-solving skills fall off dramatically, and a single beer can have the same effect as a six-pack.
What’s more, you are probably causing a serious drain on your organization’s effectiveness. In a Harvard Business Review article, Dr. Charles A. Czeisler says that engaging in or encouraging this kind of culture is not only dangerous but “the antithesis of intelligent management.” Czeisler’s message to corporate leaders: “If you want to raise performance—both your own and the organization’s—you need to pay attention to this . . . issue.”
Putting yourself or others at risk while driving or working while impaired is bad enough; expecting others to do the same is irresponsible leadership. A week of sleeping four or five hours a night induces impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .1%. Czeisler argues, ”We would never say, ‘This person is a great worker! He’s drunk all the time!’ yet we continue to celebrate people who sacrifice sleep.”
In the US, sleep-deprived drivers cause 20% of accidents, resulting in some 8,000 deaths annually. Sleeplessness can have insidious effects: an exhausted manager may lash out at employees, sales reps make sub-par presentations, employees get less than they should from expensive training, office workers have to re-do work poorly done the first time.
In an article in Fortune Small Business, writer Anne Fisher interviews several executives who, after mishaps attributed to lack of sleep, became true believers. There are some obvious fixes for the sleep deprived. Are you staying up too late, then using caffeine to fight your body’s natural response? Are you eating or drinking alcohol right before bed? Do you turn off your laptop and smartphone early enough to decompress before bedtime? Do you have a routine that relaxes you before bed, whether it’s reading (nothing work-related, please), a warm shower or bath, or some other positive ritual?
Some executives have embraced “power-naps,” a short duration time out. Mark Rosekind, a former Stanford University sleep researcher who now heads sleep-consulting firm Alertness Solutions, conducted research on pilots who took brief naps (averaging 26 minutes) between flights. “What other 26-minute investment gives you a 54% productivity boost?”
It can be difficult to recast our thinking that sleeping, especially during the workday, is wrong. We feel guilty because of the notion that work means working, even if it’s unproductive.
No matter where you stand, the evidence is in: poor sleep habits mean decreased productivity and even dangerous conditions, two things that merit a leader’s consideration.
Ed Ruggero is the creator and facilitator of The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, in which participants visit the site of the Civil War battle to learn how to better lead modern organizations.